wisdom of the gut: (Imbolc 2021)

(All images by Kate Kennington Steer)

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright
Winter will have another fight.
If Candlemas Day brings cloud and rain,
Winter won’t come again.

(Traditional)

It has been a very grey January outside my window, and I although I resist turning on a light as soon as I wake up in the morning then leaving it on all day beside my bed, there have been some days where the daylight grey has rendered it impossible to read, even at midday, without the imposition of electricity.  I hear my anger rage at the blankness of a filled-in sky driving me to consume earth’s precious resources.  I catch sight of my disappointment when it feels like it has rained every day for six weeks and I have not seen the sun.  I surprise myself with the resentment I feel when putting on a light, and its reminder of my dis-ease with shadows and penumbra inside and outside of myself; and of my reaching for easy hope, a quick fix, rushing to push past any grief, refusing to look at the hurts, declining the opportunity to ‘sit with’ the uncomfortable.

I note all this resistance in me as I continue to watch the light’s fall across the second half of my year’s exploration of the equinoxes, solstices, and the Celtic practices that surround the celebration of the ‘cross-quarter’ days marking the midpoints in between.

February 1st/2nd/3rd offers up multiple gifts to this season of grey: the Feast Day of St Brigid; Candlemas (the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ, the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Feast of the Holy Encounter); the Celtic festival of Imbolc; and lastly, the Saints day of Simeon and Anna.  All four are intimately connected.  

In 2015 I wrote a piece for the Godspace blog on Saint Brigid and her primary work as healer.  She is known as the saint of birthing mothers, and her Feast traditionally marked the beginning of Spring.  Named after Brig, the Celtic Goddess of Fire, she became the ‘bridge’ between Celtic and Christian communities in Ireland.  Fire is also an important element of Candlemas, since as the name suggests, it was the day all the church candles were blessed.  It is a Church feast day intimately connected with Mary, the mother of Jesus, as it celebrates her ritual cleansing and re-entry into the public life of the Jewish Temple, as well as the formal service of presentation of her baby to the priests and Temple congregation.  There feels like so much richness to explore in this ‘co-incidence’ between the coming of light out of darkness and the celebration of the sacred feminine.  As at so many other Celtic ritual occasions, fire marks Imbolc as the festival of Light.  Lastly, light is central to the rituals enacted around the Feast Day of Simeon and Anna, the elder and the prophetess who witnessed the child Jesus’s entry into Temple life, who are known for recognising, articulating and proclaiming this Jesus as the bringer of Light in the Darkness, that fulfilment of the Old Testament’s promise of a Messiah (Luke 2.22-40). 

Imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly’, brings an invitation to allow my body to be a vital guide for this ‘dark’ half of the Celtic year; it invites me to express both the dark and the light, the winter and the spring, through my body.  The quality of light from November to February has a felt impact on my body, my mind and my spirit.  My seeing is transfigured because of light’s blankness and flatness on grey days, and its low, acute, blinding angles on days where clear winter bright light appears. Yet discerning what ‘wisdom of the gut’ my body is trying to direct me towards, is something I find much harder to see. What in me needs ritual cleansing perhaps?  What in me needs celebrating?  What in me needs proclaiming?

All I know is that the very fallowness of winter is an invitation to rest in what I do not know.  In this rest there is a paradoxical urgency which I must heed, before I make any habitual mad dash towards spring and all the symbols of hope offered by that season.  For there is hope to be found in the stripped back, stark skeletons of winter, where what is spare and sparse is what is revealed to be beautiful, if I have eyes to see.  In this season, there may be years where the seed has already been planted deep underground, and is already growing, unseen and unfelt, in the dark.  Yet, this season also offers the possibility of jubilee, a year where the earth is not forced to be productive, where the year offers the possibility of restoration and restitution to the land, and all those who might glean from its dark riches. 

This too is the eternal truth at the heart of the Feast of the Holy Encounter.  Simeon the elder names the Christ-child as a light for revelation.  Yet this light does not have the quickly graspable qualities of hope, or the glory of what Barbara Brown Taylor calls ‘solar Christianity’.  Simeon prophesies that the Messiah is ‘a sign that will be opposed … so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed’ (Luke 2.34-5 NRSV) or as The Message translates this verse:

This child marks both the failure and

    the recovery of many in Israel,

A figure misunderstood and contradicted—

    the pain of a sword-thrust through you—

But the rejection will force honesty,

    as God reveals who they really are.

I am stunned to realise that God is working with my default behaviour, my defensiveness, my stubborn rejections, my negative reaction to whatever God may be unfolding if it involves undergoing any kind of pain or discomfort. Further, I am staggered that it is not the fact of the Christ’s existence which is to be the revelation; he is the revealer, yes, but it is we who are to be the revelation: our innermost thoughts are, our True Selves are.  And this unveiling will happen through misunderstandings, through contradictions, defensive rejections, and hurts: in other words the holy is hiding amidst all my shadow places … amongst all the tones of grey … amongst all the dark middle miles of my intestines, ‘in the belly’ of all the places I do not want to look.  

Behold, grey might be a vehicle for revelation as much as any other colour.  Grey can be a Christ-carrier in even its most unappealing state: it does not have to be pierced through or burned off or diluted, it is holy as it is, and it can bring ‘recovery’.

So the wisdom my gut offers me this year is that the beginning of February is a smorgasbord feast full of multiple offerings and opportunities for a holy encounter, for an #epiphanyoftheordinary to be released through the tiny flame of the candle before me.  What waits to be revealed as holy is already redeemed, that fire is already lit within me, if I will only open my eyes, heart and gut to receive the vision and be wholed.

So let the holy encounter with the very belly of winter begin. 

Epiphany 2021

Once upon a time, when women were birds, 

there was the simple understanding that 

to sing at dawn and to sing at dusk 

was to heal the world through joy. 

The birds still remember
what we have forgotten,
that the world is meant to be
celebrated.

Terry Tempest Williams

I wonder if I can help ‘heal the world through joy’ as Terry Tempest Williams suggests?  Epiphany is the winter season to allow my heart to do a lot of this wondering, pondering, chewing over, meditating.  It is a turning-of-the-deep-soul-soil time.

As I look back over the Advent series I have just written, and try to fathom how to continue as a JoyPilgrim in 2021 in the midst of the continued uncertainty a worldwide pandemic has brought home to us all in the last year, I come back to a reminder from Victoria Finlay: colour is a happening, a doing, a verb, not a series of naming nouns (adventapertures2020: day three).  I constantly need to remember that I, along with the world about me, is in constant, trembling transition.  This is a daunting, unsettling, unmooring type of knowledge; but it is also a hopeful one, for it allows me to quiver in excited anticipation at the opportunities given for redemption and renewal: within me, with others, within the Earth, across the globe.  

My Mum pointed me in the direction of another corrective to the idea of colour vision ever being fixed, through an article about the way that birds see colour: through four-dimensional light vision. Literally, I cannot compute this type colour vision. Birds “have this depth of richness that we can’t begin to imagine,” says Richard Prum, of the University of Kansas.  “When my ornithology students ask ‘What does this color look like to a bird?’ I have to answer, ‘You will never know, you cannot know.’ It’s like asking what the music of bats sounds like.”  

What a source of endless fascination and wonder-filled mystery that sentence is!

In the same article, John Endler, of the University of California, who studies how guppy fish perceive colour, (which changes within different environments), expands on how this UV signalling works for all animals:

The relative intensity of UV wavelengths versus longer wavelengths varies dramatically across different contexts. Ultraviolet light is relatively strong at dawn and dusk, when the sun’s low angle allows the atmosphere to absorb longer wavelengths and scatter shorter ones. Open, less vegetated habitats are richer in UV light because vegetation absorbs UV. Snow and ice reflect UV, whereas liquid water absorbs and transmits it. On cloudy days, UV’s relative intensity increases, and UV is stronger at higher altitudes due to the thinner atmosphere. Other factors include everything from latitude, season, and lunar phase to the reflectance of different rock types at the micro-site scale. 

It makes sense to my (admittedly very unscientific) brain that not only do I as a human not have the ability to see the full range of colours dancing in the universe, that even if I did have the range, what I might want to name as a ‘colour’ would constantly be affected by the UV light playing off its’ shifting, shimmering surroundings.  This is such a cause of creative wonder to me.  It is also a very humbling reminder that God’s creative vision is infinitely wider, deeper, longer, than mine; and that I do not need to know all the things under heaven.  In fact for me, Epiphany is often the season of unknowing, of entering into Mystery, rather than a blinding flash of wisdom suddenly transforming my understanding.  And if I have learnt one thing over the past forty days of being a JoyPilgrim, it is that while joy as an emotion is often illusory in my life, Joy as a presence can be cultivated.

I found help for exercising my ‘rejoicing muscles’ in Christine Aroney-Sine’s book The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for delighting in God.  She curates a journalling exercise adapted from the prayer of examen, a contemplative practice created by Ignatius of Loyola in the sixteenth century, ‘to examine our days, detect God’s presence, and discern God’s purposes’:

Write “I choose joy” on the first blank page …

Each night for the next week prayerfully think back over your day.

What did you enjoy doing?  

What made you smile, laugh, dance, or shout out loud for joy today?

How did you respond to these joyful moments?

… Imagine God entering into your joy.

In what ways did these joyful moments make you sense God’s pleasure and draw you closer to God?

In what ways did they draw you closer to others?

What creative impulses or responses did they stir within you?

What could you do tomorrow to cultivate and grow that joy?

Name the tensions.  

What destroyed your joy today and made you feel distant from God?

What distanced you from others and perhaps destroyed their joy?

What adjustments could you make to overcome the tensions and restore your joy?

Reward yourself.  

Each evening, reward your self for the creative responses that enhanced your joy.  Give yourself a special treat for each tension that turned into a joy-filled moment where you sensed God’s pleasure … Laugh at yourself.  Toast yourself for being a person who is able to overcome tension and create joy spots.  As you laugh I hope that you will sense God’s approval of your contemplation.

At the end of the week take extra time to relax and look over your week.

What gave you the greatest joy?

What do you think gave the greatest pleasure to God?

What could you do this coming week to expand your own joy and the pleasure you brought to God? (133)

The idea that God might delight in me shocked me, so conditioned am I to feel myself perpetually falling short of some invisible standard of perfection that will never yield the approval I crave.  Believing the default lie of perfectionism that ‘I am not (and never can be) enough’ to God (or anyone else for that matter), is just one example of how I quench my joy, how continually I quench God’s joy both of me, and within me.  As I continue intentionally exploring colour in all forms of my creative being and doing during 2021, as I stumble along as a JoyPilgrim, asking this simple question might be the most demanding Epiphany season: what can I do to increase my joy?

One of my favourite books of 2020 was Macrina Wiederkehr’s Seven Sacred Pauses, and she writes of Joy’s ‘persistence’:

Joy has the ability to live with and through the sorrows.  Perhaps the reason for joy’s persistence is hidden in a definition of joy that comes to us from the novelist Eugenia Price. “Joy,” she says, “is God in the marrow of our bones.”  Joy is a deep well.  If, in times of sorrow, we go down under the sorrow, we will discover that joy is still alive.  Thus we will be able to raise high the chalice of our lives in any kind of weather. (50)

Increasing my joy depends on nourishing the presence of this precious marrow  – and learning how to do so in all seasons.  May I learn in 2021 how to delight God by consciously learning how to receive the eternal gifts found in the colours each day brings, in all weathers, so that I might pour them in the chalice of my life, lifting high the One in me who is Joy-with-us.

When the light around you lessens

And your thoughts darken until

Your body feels fear turn

Cold as a stone inside,

When you find yourself bereft

Of any belief in yourself

And all you unknowingly

Leaned on has fallen,

When one voice commands

Your whole heart,

And it is raven dark,

Steady yourself and see

That it is your own thinking

That darkens your world.

Search and you will find

A diamond-thought of light,

Know that you are not alone,

And that this darkness has purpose;

Gradually it will school your eyes,

To find the one gift your life requires

Hidden within this night-corner.

Invoke the learning

Of every suffering

You have suffered.

Close your eyes.

Gather all the kindling

About your heart

To create one spark

That is all you need

To nourish the flame

That will cleanse the dark

Of its weight of festered fear.

A new confidence will come alive

To urge you towards higher ground

Where your imagination

will learn to engage difficulty

As its most rewarding threshold!

‘For Courage’

John O’Donohue, from Benedictus/To Bless the Space Between Us

threshold to Joy. iPhone image.

watchnight 2020

The water is one thing, and one thing for miles.

The water is one thing, making this bridge

Built over the water another. Walk it

Early, walk it back when the day goes dim, everyone

Rising just to find a way toward rest again.

We work, start on one side of the day

Like a planet’s only sun, our eyes straight

Until the flame sinks. The flame sinks. Thank God

I’m different. I’ve figured and counted. I’m not crossing

To cross back. I’m set

On something vast. It reaches

Long as the sea. I’m more than a conqueror, bigger

Than bravery. I don’t march. I’m the one who leaps.

From The Tradition, Jericho Brown.

I am coming late to the cultural phenomenon who is Marie Kondo, and her KonMari method for decluttering one’s life, so I was surprised to discover that her central tenet is the question: does it bring you joy?  Nataly Kogan tried it out:

Does it bring you joy? … If you answer yes, you keep the item. If you hesitate or say no, you donate it or throw it out. It’s simple, it’s brilliant, and it’s something that’s completely intuitive. You can spend a lot of time justifying how something might at some point be useful to you and therefore decide to keep it, but whether something brings you joy is an emotional question and one that can be answered almost instantly: If you feel joy or if you don’t feel joy: there’s no need to make it more complicated than that…

1. Joy is simple yet powerful.
…I found the decision process itself really easy: Joy is a simple filter we can apply to a lot of things, beyond clothes or stuff. We know it when we feel it, it’s strong and vibrant, and it can be a really great lens through which to view other life-choices.

2. There are different ways to bring joy.
… Perhaps the dress brought you joy when you bought it and at that moment you felt the thrill of the shopping-hunt and thinking about ways you were going to wear it. If so, Kondo says, that’s great — that item of clothing has served its purpose: it brought you joy at some point. Now you can remember that and put it into the donation pile without guilt.

3. We don’t hang on to things; we hang on to emotions attached to those things.

… Those jeans remind me of that time, of what I was feeling then, and I realized that while I’d probably never wear them again I’d kept them in an attempt to hang on to those emotions I’d connected them to. The jeans were just jeans; but the emotions they’d elicited were what I was hanging on to. When I put them in the donation pile on my floor, I felt a huge sense of freedom and relief — giving away a pair of pants was a way to let go of feelings I no longer needed carry with me.

4. Fewer things you love is better than many things you kinda like.

… here’s what really surprised me: When I was done decluttering I didn’t want to run out and shop for new clothes. I had less than before — I estimate that I donated about a quarter of all my clothes and shoes — but I was so much happier with what I now had that I lacked that familiar desire to chase something new. What an unexpected benefit and a huge lesson.

5. It’s not about what others think.

.. when it comes to joy — about what you’re wearing, or what you’re eating, or what you’re doing with your life — you have to feel it yourself. If you don’t, it doesn’t much matter what others think: their joy is not a substitute for your own.

I find it fascinating that Marie Kondo is trying to ‘spark joy’ (to use her phrase).  And whilst thinking about tidying up my material belongings might be tempting, especially at this turning of leaves time that is a New Year, to how much more of my life might this JoyPilgrim need to apply this intention?  For sparking joy needs to become my way of life, my way of thinking, my way of creating, my way of praying, my way of serving …

At this midnight hour, during the watches of this long night, on the threshold between the years, I pray for the grace to spark joy in others in the coming times.  However I may feel, whatever may occur, may I become a JoySpark; embodying sacred Joy as many times as I can, in as many places as I can, in as many ways as I can.  May the transmission of this JoySpark always be a blessing bursting forth, pointing up and out, in and down, to where the Holy waits for us.

What lifts the heron leaning on the air

I praise without a name.  A crouch, a flare,

a long stroke through the cumulus of trees,

a shaped thought at the sky – then gone.  O rare!

Saint Francis, being happiest on his knees,

would have cried Father!  Cry anything you please.

But praise.  By any name or none.  But praise

the white original burst that lights

the heron on his two soft kissing kites.

When saints praise heaven lit by doves and rays,

I sit by pond scums till the air recites

Its heron back.  And doubt all else.  But praise.

John Ciardi

set on something vast (triptych). IPhone images.

Christmas Day 2020

O Colors of Earth, anoint me and robe me with all the attributes I need for my life work: purple for wisdom, meditation, transformation and spirituality; red for passion, energy and courage; blues and greens for calm restfulness, balance, healing, hope, serenity, and contemplation; golden yellows for optimism and joy, lucidity, compassion and illumination, and orange for animation, creativity and enthusiasm; black and white for death and life, power and innocence, mysticism and truth.

(Macrina Wiederkehr)

May the Joy of the One who is All Colourful illuminate your colour in you this day, and in all your days to come.

palette. iPhone image.

Christmas Eve 2020

Here, where the rivers dredge up
the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors—
muttonfat jade, kingfisher jade, jade of appleskin green.

And here, in the glittering
hues of the Flemish Masters, we sample their wine;
rest in their windows’ sun warmth,
cross with pleasure their scrubbed tile floors.
Everywhere the details leap like fish— bright shards
of water out of water, facet cut, swift moving
on the myriad bones.

Any woodthrush shows it— he sings,
not to fill the world, but because he is filled.

But the world does not fill with us,
it spills and spills, whirs with owl wings,
rises, sets, stuns us with planet rings, stars.
A carnival tent, a fluttering of banners.

O baker of yeast scented loaves,
sword dancer,
seamstress, weaver of shattering glass,
O whirler of winds, boat swallower,
germinant seed,
O seasons that sing in our ears in the shape of O—
we name your colors muttonfat, kingfisher, jade,
we name your colors anthracite, orca, growth tip of pine,
we name them arpeggio, pond,
we name them flickering helix within the cell, burning coal tunnel,
blossom of salt,
we name them roof flashing copper, frost scent at morning, smoke singe
of pearl,
from black flowering to light flowering we praise them,
from barest conception, the almost not thought of, to heaviest matter,
we praise them,
from glacier lit blue to the gold of iguana we praise them,
and praising, begin to see,
and seeing, begin to assemble the plain stones of earth.

‘The Stone of Heaven’

Jane Hirshfield, from The Lives of the Heart

As Rilke noted (quoted yesterday) rivers will bring our deepest sources of treasure into the daylight, because God ‘foregathers’ the brilliance we choose to ignore, the gold we never imagined existed within us.  Jane Hirshfield (above) also points to the same movement of Spirit: ‘Here, where the rivers dredge up/ the very stone of Heaven, we name its colors’.  Even when I have to ‘dredge’ the intention up from the depths of my shadowed places, such noticing and naming receives the gifts of God’s bounty, and responds in praise, in a bellow of gratitude, in a delight that ‘from black flowering to light flowering’ there is treasure to sustain me, if only I have eyes to see.  This is the arc of the JoyPilgrimage I have been on this Advent, and Hirshfield’s hallelujah of colour seem to fit the moment where, once-again and for the first time, I celebrate the ‘breaking-in’ of the Cosmic Christ incarnate in my here and my now.  As the poet John Milton wrote, 

Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world.

Reverence.  Awe.  Gratitude.  These are the ingredients of the ‘everyday epiphanies’ of the God-with-us, that will transfigure me, heal me, if I will let them.  

I experienced one such ‘epiphany of the ordinary’ when I came across an article written by Clive James on a phrase unknown to me until then, a ’feu de joie’:

The French expression feu de joie refers to a military celebration when all the riflemen of a regiment fire one shot after another, in close succession: ideally the sound should be continuous, like a drumroll … Symbolically, the fire of joy is a reminder that the regiment’s collective power relies on the individual, and vice versa.  Imprinted on my mind, the succession of explosions became an evocation of the heritage of English poets and poetry, from Chaucer onwards. It still strikes me as a handy metaphor for the poetic succession, especially because, in the feu de joie, nobody got hurt. It was all noise: and noise, I believe, is the first and last thing that poetry is. If a poem doesn’t sound compel­ling, it won’t continue to exist … With a poem the most important thing is the way it sounds when you say it … 

My understanding of what a poem is has been formed over a lifetime by the memory of the poems I love; the poems, or frag­ments of poems, that got into my head seemingly of their own volition, despite all the contriving powers of my natural idleness to keep them out. I discovered early on that a scrap of language can be like a tune in that respect: it gets into your head no matter what. In fact, I believe, that is the true mark of poetry: you remember it despite yourself.  The Italians have a word for the store of poems you have in your head: a gazofilacio … a treasure chamber of the mind. The poems I remember are the milestones marking the journey of my life. And unlike paintings, sculptures or passages of great music, they do not outstrip the scope of memory, but are the actual thing, incarnate … The remarkable thing, I suppose, is not that I memorised a few poems, but that I never forgot them. Perhaps because the reward for success was freedom, I thought of poetry, forever afterwards, as my ticket out: the equivalent of hiding in the laundry in the truck out of the prison camp. When I am busy with the eternal task of memorising chunks of Milton, I can hear the sirens as I escape through the woods outside the wire of Stalag Luft III. For me, poetry means freedom. Even today, in fact especially today, when the ruins of my very body are the prison, poetry is my way through the wire and out into the world.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/sep/26/clive-james-the-poems-i-remember-are-the-milestones-marking-the-journey-of-my-life?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

Such ‘everyday epiphanies’ are my personal route to freedom, both with and without a camera in my hand.  A delight in language, even if my concentration and memory are too poor to retain its delicacies, brings untold riches to me each day.  The world is full of fascinating people making interesting things out of their experiences.  I am so grateful for the gift of sight, for the education I received so I can read, for the technology that connects me to a web of connections with others, for the trees that render me their matter so I can write and print and paint on blank pages.

Let my gratitude become a ‘feu de joie’.

May I become the embodiment of the Joyful Noise of Spirit pulsating in my very marrow.

May I embrace all the colours of the Colourful One.

May I join with other JoyPilgrims in creating the rope of Hope to extend to others we meet on our way, pulling each other out of the ‘slough of desponds’ we find ourselves imprisoned by at that moment.  

May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that our collective power relies on each individual releasing the jewels from her own gazofilacio, his treasure chamber of the heart, so she may be healed.  May the Fire of Joy act as a reminder to me that it relies on each member of the community doing likewise, in a successive fan of gold light so that the world may be healed, so that God’s Kingdom may come.

Start where you are, and realise you are not meant on your own to resolve all of these massive problems.  Do what you can … remember you are not alone, and you do not need to finish the work.  It takes time, but we are learning, we are growing, we are becoming the people we want to be.  It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering.  We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognise that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy.  Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy.  This, too, is a great gift.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with the Dalai Lama and Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy (274)

feu de joie. iPhone image.

day 25

I was afraid

that with their blocks of concrete

the skyscrapers might wound the dawn.

But you ought to see

how sensitive they are

to the morning light,

how they disarm

and lose their cutting edge

and steely soul!

They too are caught

in the irresistible spell

of the holy hour

when the whole natural world

in rapture chants

creation’s hymn of praise.

Dom Helder Camara

I want to stand for joy.  I want to be a signpost pointing to the Light that is Dark and the Dark that is Light and declare both are aspects of the God who invites me into an encounter with Joy today: a beholding beyond my wildest imagination.  

One of my favourite observations that I find myself returning to every Advent was made by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross that great noter of the art of dying, and the five stages of grief.  She insists:

People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is light from within.

I want to show my colours in my darkness, but I also want to be alert to seek the tones that are unique to those I might meet today, wherever and whatever their situation.  I need the curiosity of being a JoyPilgrim most especially at these moments, so I can pause and pay attention to where God is being revealed in this time, in this place.  As A.L.Rowse noted (quoted on Day 5) an encounter with colour left him ‘moon-struck’.  It ‘meant’ something that was beyond his articulation, it gave him ‘some sense of the transcendence of things, of the fragility of our hold upon life’.  It was a ‘reaching out to perfection’.  But an encounter with this transcendent sublime gave him ‘an unease of heart’  `(A.L. Rowse, found in John Pridmore, Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood).

I too, recognise that often – underlying the fleeting pure moments of connection with The Great Artist which bring such a sense of rightness, of knowing, of being held, of exhilaration and delight – there is also this sense of unease.  An encounter with the Mystery always reminds me of Moses in the wilderness standing before a burning bush and being told to take off his shoes “for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3.5 (NRSV)).  A visionary encounter with the Holy will always produce trepidation in my heart, and such a ‘Fear of the Lord’ links directly with the morass of my internal fears.  But these fears can burn up and shrivel, if I practice what I call ‘mining for gold’.  Seeking the places where joy and colour might hide in my past, gives me deep hope for the future.  This JoyPilgrim is alert for gold light wherever it might appear: a ’core of concentrated splendour’ as Anne Treener describes it (below).  

In his epic poem The River in the Sky, Clive James made an extended study of his own experience of dying from leukaemia, and was surprised to be alive long enough to complete it.  It seems to me that he too must have had his own practice of ‘mining for gold’, a lyrical form of observing the resilience of the human spirit, in order to be able to write the following:

After Rembrandt lost his wealth

He could still paint the frothed and combed

Delicacy of light on gold,

The texture of the gathering darkness

Made manifest by the gleam

That it contains and somehow seems to flaunt

While dialling down.  An understated festival,

His energy came back to him through memory

As mine does here and now, as if lent power

By the force of its own fading.

Clive James, The River in the Sky (6)

The idea that ‘gold light’ can be ‘an understated festival’ which produces new sources of energy is a tantalising idea for someone like me, whose illness drains so much of my life-force, vitality and energy.  Yet all the poets seem to agree, this light-driven energy just awaits me within.  Even on the days when my stained-glass luminosity might be very dim, God’s festival of gold remains within, ready to be mined for my healing:

… Though we reject the deepest sources,

though mountain ore has gold for working

and none the will to fetch it out,

rivers will bring it to the day,

reaching there it tranquilly gathers

in filling rock.

Desire him or not,

God foregathers.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Book of Hours/ The Book of Monkish Life

(trans. Susan Ranson)

Wherever, whenever, there is an encounter with gold light, there is the possibility of an encounter with Grace.

I suppose the sun was trying to come out and the rays were in some way refracted by the mist.  We saw a golden light, not brilliant but mellow and suffused, yet with a core of concentrated splendour – a sheaf of gilding.  It was the dull but glowing gold of gilded missals … On Dodman Point that day of my childhood, I thought the splendour was God.

Anne Treener, found in John Pridmore, Playing with Icons: The Spirituality of Recalled Childhood

uneasy luminosity. iPhone image.

feeling blue

(all images by Kate Kennington Steer)

I put on some music,

trying to catch a mood,

but the invented rhythms

do nothing.

So I listen instead

to the cackle and spit of the fire,

the roar and hiss of the rain,

the howl and whip of the wind

and ah,

yes,

there it is.

‘Mood Music’

from Devastating Beauty, Gideon Heugh

During this year when I have been deliberately seeking to explore the way colour affects my life, I found myself reflecting on the choice of the colour blue as the symbol for creating a new feast day.  The modern Church has dubbed today, the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice, as ‘Blue Christmas’: an opportunity to celebrate the presence and worth of all those individuals who find this season particularly difficult, whether through physical or mental illness, through grief, through poverty, through family violence and abuse, or through loneliness and abandonment.  By consciously bring all these to mind, the hope is that we will all increase our compassion, understanding and welcome towards these who are often considered outsiders and strangers, shut out from the traditional, commercial or religious rituals that surround this time of the year.

So why ‘blue’?  The first resonance which comes to my mind is the phrase ‘feeling blue’, to describe someone’s mental and emotional state.  It might imply a mild, but heartfelt, depressed moment, day or season in someone’s life; or an elongated experience of a foggy blankness that nothing seems to touch.  There is a vagueness about this blue, a I-don’t-really-know-what’s-wrong-with-me blue, describing someone who is downcast, feeling separated, isolated, dislocated, excluded, from the normal bustle of the everyday world in that moment.

It is often suggested that any emotional turmoil associated with ‘feeling blue’ might be healed with the spiritual and neural muscle memory which regular meditation can give.  Such a holistic approach might bring about the antidote of a ‘blue mind’, as Wallace J. Nichols comments:

Blue Mind is a mildly meditative state characterized by calm, peacefulness, unity, and a sense of general happiness and satisfaction with life in the moment. It is inspired by water and elements associated with water, from the color blue to the words we use to describe the sensations associated with immersion.

In utter contrasts to this, there’s ‘singing the Blues’.  This blue streams out of the roots of Negro-Spirituals of the deep South of the U.S.A.  This blue is a scream of pain born out of human experiences no being should ever undergo – let alone at the hands of another through enslavement, trafficking, or torture.  It is a blue wail of rage and grief that comes from places that I, as a white, educated, British woman, will never comprehend.  The fact that there are unnumbered musicians down the centuries who have made beauty from this blue, who have sought to expand upon this blue and explore its multifarious facets, is a source of awe and wonder to me.

Then there’s the ‘blue hour’, the phase of sunset which, for photographers, follows the ‘golden hour’.  These are the blues of twilight – whether civil, nautical or astronomical (the degrees to which the sun has descended below the horizon).  These are the blues of longing, of distance, of ambiguity and mystery, of descent towards the dark.  In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit writes:

The blue of distance comes with time, with the discovery of melancholy, of loss, the texture of longing, of the complexity of the terrain we traverse, and with the years of travel…Blue the color that represents the spirit, the sky, and water, the immaterial and the remote, so that however tactile and up-close it is, it is always about distance and disembodiment. (39,159)

In a letter from December 1828 the English painter Samuel Palmer wrote this evocative description of the ‘blue hour’:

Creation sometimes pours into the spiritual eye the radiance of Heaven: the green mountains that glimmer in a summer gloaming from the dusky yet bloomy East … [These things] shed a mild, a grateful, an unearthly lustre into the inmost spirits, and seem the interchanging twilight of that peaceful country, where there is no sorrow or night.  Every light eternally on the change: yet no light finally extinguished.

That I might see ‘every light eternally on the change: yet no light finally extinguished’ seems to sum up the hope that lies deep under all the ambiguity and lostness of my own blues-song.  So this year I am deliberately trying to take note of twilight, charting the shifts in me as another set of daylights fade into nightlights in the sky outside my window.  I hope to be deliberate about gathering into me all the hues of blues, and as earth-time leans into darkness, to help my spirit-time lean towards the lights reflected back to my eyes in even the darkest of indigo tones.

Here is a light which the eye inevitably seeks with a deeper feeling of the beautiful – the light of a declining day, and the flakes of scarlet cloud burning like watchfires in the green sky of the horizon; a deeper feeling, I say, not perhaps more acute but having more of spiritual hope and longing … all that is dazzling in colour and perfect in form [is evanescent and shallow] when compared with the still small voice of the level twilight behind purple hills.

John Ruskin

Perhaps then, deliberately, mindfully, care-fully, I can embrace all my different blues, all the shades of it that are unique to me.  Perhaps then, I maybe able to sit in the blues of my lostness and see them clearly enough to realise there are others in this world, known and unknown to me, in this present moment and in the future, who need what only my Spirit-enlivened colours can give them.  Perhaps then, my ‘blue mind’ might be transfigured into an offering of Grace which points straight to the One who invites me to immerse myself into the blue shadowed darknesses of the Light of the World.

(This article was originally written for the Godspace blog as part of their ‘Lean towards the Light’ Advent series)

day 24

This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.

In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.

This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.

The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.

No lust, no slam of the door –
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.

No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor –
just a twinge every now and then

for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.

But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.

After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,

so patient and soluble,
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.

‘Aimless Love’ 

Billy Collins, from Nine Horses

Where can I find Joy?  It can be found where ever I look, if I have eyes to see.  It can be found in the smallest of details, in the grandest of wide skies.  It can be found in my here and my now as I look out of the window to the limbs of the apple tree, a single leaf at the tip of a branch waving bravely in the breeze like a yellow prayer flag.  

As a contemplative photographer I have found many occasions where the overwhelm of depression can be halted, at least temporarily, by adopting Brother David Steindl-Rast’s simple gratitude practice of ‘Stop. Look. Go.’ (He explains it in a short film here.)

Kristi Nelson, Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living at gratefulness.org, expands on each of these directions:

We STOP to connect with the deepest truths, principles, and concerns of our hearts; to breathe and become grounded in our bodies and in our awareness. By seriously slowing down, even for a moment, we can become cognizant of the intense privileges and blessings of being awake and alive. Claiming the gifts of our lives is not an indulgence. Instead, by accepting and appreciating what we have, we are reminded of what we have going “for” us that many in the world do not. Gaining this perspective allows us to shine more brightly with a sense of possibility and responsibility to improve life for others, in the ways that we can … 

We LOOK in order to notice our surroundings, available opportunities, and to recognize the resources, tools, and passions with which we can make a difference. “Looking within” helps us to be more connected to a sense of purpose and our fundamental principles, and therefore to be less scattered and reactive. Standing firmly in the sacredness of our values, and clear about what we love and cherish, we can better stand our ground with integrity and resolve.

When we look outside ourselves, we recognize that we are not alone; we are one among many who care, and are part of a long history of activism and change. We can gain inspiration from remembering that through ongoing, collective action people have always made a difference. With an expanded gaze and perspective we are able to learn from those who came before us and those who surround us, and can find the hope we need, in ourselves and each other, to do what we feel called to do.

Grateful for democracy? Uphold it.

Grateful for diversity? Protect it.

Grateful for our Earth? Care for it.

Grateful for freedom? Defend it.

Grateful for love? Spread it.

Grateful for justice? Fortify it.

Grateful for community? Nurture it.

Grateful for peace? Live it.

Finally, we GO. When we actively take a stand for the things for which we are most grateful, our actions are “sourced” differently. Committed to that which we most deeply treasure, we uncover reserves of energy, vigor, and clarity that can fuel and sustain our activism, and sustain us as we act. Actions which arise from grateful awareness can be more creative, relevant, effective, sustaining, and meaningful.

(https://gratefulness.org/blog/standing-our-sacred-grateful-ground-activism-gratitude-social-justice/)

In his book The Reality Slap ACT therapist Russ Harris repeatedly asks the reader what it is they want to ‘stand for’ in the face of the sensed gap between the very real feelings and circumstances of this present moment, and the ideal place where they want to be.

What do I want to stand for?  As I write this, on a day where my legs are struggling with seizures, I want to stand for hope – even when it feels like the thinnest filament of silver thread connecting me to the Hope.  I want to stand for joy.  I want my story to stand as a wobbly bridge, a bent pipe, between those who feel lost, alone, and the One who invites them into Belonging.  I am an imperfect scarecrow of a signpost, but I want to stand up and claim joy as present in my now.  I want to practice stop-look-go, and invite others to do the same.

Out walking in the swamp picking cowslip, marsh marigold,

this sweet first green of spring. Now sautéed in a pan melting

to a deeper green than ever they were alive, this green, this life,

harbinger of things to come. Now we sit at the table munching

on this message from the dawn which says we and the world

are alive again today, and this is the world’s birthday. And

even though we know we are growing old, we are dying, we

will never be young again, we also know we’re still right here

now, today, and, my oh my! don’t these greens taste good.

‘The First Green of Spring’

David Budbill

stand for this. iPhone image.

Blue Christmas 2020

The twilight turns from amethyst 

To deep and deeper blue, 

The lamp fills with a pale green glow 

The trees of the avenue. 

The old piano plays an air, 

Sedate and slow and gay; 

She bends upon the yellow keys, 

Her head inclines this way. 

Shy thought and grave wide eyes and hands 

That wander as they list — – 

The twilight turns to darker blue 

With lights of amethyst. 

‘The Twilight’

James Joyce

Today is Blue Christmas, the feast day for all those who do not feel able to, or cannot, feast.  In this year when all peoples of the world have had to alter their daily ways of being, there has been so much loss and grief, so much debt and unemployment, so much isolation and depression, so much abuse, so many whose wounds have not been tended.  Today is the feast day for me to remember them; to join with them in my largely house-bound, bed-bound, depression-bound state; to pray with and for them as much as myself.  

Joy is so hard to find when I mistake it for happiness.  But as I watch the fading light on this the shortest, darkest day of my year, I continue to choose joy as a way of being.  And the easiest way to re-orientate myself to joy is to pause, then name the things for which I am deeply grateful.  Joy comes when I count my blessings, because there are so many, an abundance of signs of care, signs of God-with-me in this, here and now.

As I watch the fading light, sitting still in the light that is not yet dark and the dark that has not yet let go of light, I feel I am in a hinterland, in a ’thin place’.  This is a place of silence before the Almighty, where I am invited to allow the Spirit to breath through me more freely.  In this in-between place of grief and gratitude, of poverty and praise, I pray Macrina Wiederkehr’s ‘twilight’ prayer from her Litany of the Hours:

Make of me a twilight: wake of colour, trail of glory.  In the evening of life transform me into a song of gratitude.  I want to be an evening star for those who have lost their way.  I want to be beauty at the end of each day.  On my pilgrimage through the day, write mystery stories with my life.  Out of my faithful attendance to the hours pour forth the incense of your praise.

  • Transform me into a song of gratitude.

(Seven Sacred Pauses (177-179))

On this threshold of becoming, immersed in the colours of the day turning to night, I listen to Martyn Joseph sing ‘Turn me Tender’: https://youtu.be/zJiB5GGZaU0.

It’s happened again, the colourless sky

Has dimmed me again and I’ve run out of why

Hank Williams is grieving, I’m scanning the Psalms

When Jesus was here they stilletoed his palms

And the pledge and the vow is ‘you find if you seek’

But what if you try and find nothing but bleak

So turn me tender again

Fold me into you

Turn me tender again

And mould me to new

Faith lost its promise

And bruised me deep blue

Turn me tender again

Through union with you

Let me lay with you now like that very first time

I’ve had rooms full of dollars but I’m down to a dime

Though there’s wonder and awe in the mane of a lion

There’s nowhere to go and I’m chapters from Zion

Yet you’re still my cryptic and cherishing prayer

With serenity kisses that soothe and repair

And laments have a purpose and laments have a cost

A requiem playing gathers the lost

It sometimes tastes sour, the sweetness of hope

When the blizzards are raging on this lover’s slope

Yet I don’t want to freeze inside or out

For it’s you that dissolves the cold walls of doubt

Turn Me Tender’

Music and Lyrics: Martyn Joseph / Stewart Henderson

dimmed hope. iPhone image.

Sunday 4

Joy is hidden in compassion.  The word compassion literally means ‘to suffer with’.  It seems quite unlikely that suffering with another person would bring joy.  Yet being with a person in pain, offering simple presence to someone in despair, sharing with a friend times of confusion and uncertainty … such experiences can bring us deep joy.  Not happiness, not excitement, not great satisfaction, but the quiet joy of being there for someone else and living in deep solidarity with our brothers and sisters in this human family.  Often this is a solidarity in weakness, in brokenness, in woundedness, but it leads us to the centre of joy, which is sharing our humanity with others.

Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (43) 

Finding a quiet joy as the Presence reflects back the glory of my own colours today is not the final destination of a JoyPilgrim.  All the great spiritual leaders of all faiths, past and present, agree that Joy is truly found in community, in the deep compassion of ‘being with’ those we find ourselves next to, known and unknown to us, physically or virtually.  Today, I will need all my courage: today I seek to see and salute the colours of others.  As the poet John O’Donohue writes,

Human presence is a creative and turbulent sacrament, a visible sign of invisible grace … Nowhere is there such intimate and frightening access to the mysterious.  Friendship is the sweet grace that liberates us to approach, recognise and inhabit this adventure.

(cited in Brian Draper, Spiritual Intelligence (121)

In the Book of Joy Douglas Abrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama set out over the course of a week together to explore where Joy might be found for every person on the planet.  The Dalai Lama insists that we are all ‘same person, same human being’ so he invites us: ‘come and stand next to me and let’s laugh at me together, then we can laugh at you together’ (221).  He explains that the Buddhist principle of mudita means to cultivate a ‘sympathetic joy’, which asks ‘how are we?’ rather than ‘how am I?’; it is a mutual act of compassion fully recognising our human interdependence (140).  Archbishop Tutu explains the corresponding South-African concept of Ubuntu:

It says: A person is a person through other persons.  

Ubuntu says when I have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit that I share it with you … you realize in a very real sense that we’re meant for a very profound complementarity.   It is the nature of things.  You don’t have to be a believer in anything.  I mean I could not speak as I am speaking without having learned it from other human beings.  I could not walk as a human being.  I could not think as a human being, except through learning it from other human beings.  I learned to be a human being from other human beings.  We belong in this delicate network.  It is actually quite profound.

Unfortunately, in our world we tend to be blind to our connection until times of great disaster.  We find we start caring about people in Timbuktu, whom we’ve never met, and we’re probably never going to meet this side of death.  And yet we pour out our hearts.  We give resources to help them because we realize we are bound up together.  We are bound up and can be human only together. (60)

I can only fully be me, if I let you fully be you.  Whether we recognise it, admit it, practise it, we are all interconnected.  How I am with an-other will affect how that person is with a lover, a friend, a stranger, a culture in their turn.  It seems that Joy is to be found in sameness not specialness.  My ego longs to find its’ own significance, but as long as I confuse my significance, my purpose, with importance, or success, or outcomes, I will find I am separated from others, from myself, and ultimately, from the Beloved Who Waits.  Just as God is with me in all, so I in my turn need to ‘be with’ all.

One river gives

Its journey to the next.

We give because someone gave to us.

We give because nobody gave to us.

We give because giving has changed us.

We give because giving could have changed us.

We have been better for it,

We have been wounded by it—

Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,

Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.

Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,

But we read this book, anyway, over and again:

Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand,

Mine to yours, yours to mine.

You gave me blue and I gave you yellow.

Together we are simple green.  You gave me

What you did not have, and I gave you

What I had to give—together, we made

Something greater from the difference.

‘When Giving is All We Have’

Alberto Rios

you gave me pink.  Canon 7D. f10.1/250. ISO 3200.